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Washington, D.C. see + do

The only thing more impressive than the sheer diversity of attractions in Washington, D.C., is the fact that most of them are free. In a single day (and for less than a penny), you can see a baby panda at the National Zoo; ogle the Hope Diamond, Dorothy's ruby slippers, and the original star-spangled banner; and watch history being made during a session of Congress. Indeed, you could spend an entire week just exploring the 137 million objects stored in the Smithsonian's 17 museums, including the National Museum of the American Indian (which has the best cafeteria on the Mall), the Air and Space Museum with its futuristic flight simulators, the Natural History Museum and its towering collection of dinosaur fossils, and the newly reopened National Museum of American History. Few visitors have the time (or stamina) to make it through all the museums on one trip—focus on three or four, and perhaps pop in to a few others to see a favorite painting or artifact. (Another benefit to the lack of admission fees at the Smithsonian: Entering is a breeze.) Other free and unmissable sights include the monuments lining the National Mall, particularly Maya Lin's moving Vietnam War Memorial. Visiting non-Smithsonian museums requires a bit more planning: Reserve ahead of time for popular spots like the interactive Spy Museum or the poignant and sobering Holocaust Museum. Make time to get out of the city to see George Washington's Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. Also outside the city is the sobering Arlington National Cemetery, where you can pay your respects at the Eternal Flame.

The real heart of D.C. beats on Capitol Hill and at the White House. Even the most jaded of tourists will have a hard time quelling their patriotism when walking under the soaring dome of the Capitol rotunda or gazing upon the expansive lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And there's never been a better time to visit: The new administration has brought with it a more accessible vibe, and the 2008 opening of the Capitol Visitors Center makes touring Congress an infinitely more pleasurable experience, with extensive on-site facilities, interactive exhibits, and a streamlined online reservations system. Visiting the White House, on the other hand, remains nearly as difficult as winning the presidency: You'll have to write to your Congressional representative as much as six months in advance to get inside, and even then, tours are only available to groups of ten or more. Another way to take the nation's political pulse is by eavesdropping on the lobbyists sipping expense-account reds at the Oval Room or hanging with the young Obama staffers unwinding over Belgian beers at Marvin.

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The Mall and Its Monuments, White House/National Mall

Most of Washington, D.C.'s must-see monuments are clustered on the western end of the National Mall, so it's possible to see them all in one day. Construction...more

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John F. Kennedy Center For the Performing Arts, Foggy Bottom

Located on the Potomac River next to the Watergate complex, Washington's premier performing arts venue (dedicated to arts advocate JFK) has nine stages and is...more

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International Spy Museum, Penn Quarter

The only facility dedicated to the study of international espionage, this museum has a permanent collection of artifacts and spy gadgets (such as a pistol...more

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Hillwood Museum and Gardens, Cleveland Park/Tenleytown

Hillwood was heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post's Washington residence from 1955 until her death in 1973. Today, the 25-acre estate in northwest Washington...more

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Ford's Theatre National Historic Site, Downtown

Reopened in 2009 after an 18-month, $50 million restoration, Ford's Theatre National Historic Site is a working theater that doubles as a memorial to Abraham...more

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Corcoran Gallery of Art, White House/National Mall

NOTE: The Corcoran Gallery of Art will be closed for roof renovations from January 26 through March 13, 2009. The city's first art museum, housed in an...more

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Information may have changed since date of publication. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.

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